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Holy Spirit Interactive: Fr. William P. Saunders: Origins of the Rosary - Part II

Origins of the Rosary - Part II

by Fr. William P. Saunders

Last week, we addressed the development and structure of the holy rosary. This week, we turn to the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and the rosary’s important role in the spiritual life of Catholics.

The rosary gained greater popularity in the 1500s, especially through the efforts of Pope St. Pius V. At this time, the Muslim Turks were ravaging eastern Europe. Recall that in 1453, Constantinople had fallen to the Muslims, leaving the Balkans and Hungary open to conquest. In 1521, they had conquered Belgrade, Hungary, and by 1526, they were at the gates of Vienna, Austria. With Muslims raiding even the coast of Italy, the control of the Mediterranean was now at stake.

In February 1570, the Turkish Ambassador delivered an ultimatum to the Republic of Venice: Cede the island of Cyprus peacefully, or face war. Venice refused, and after 11 months of war, Cyprus fell to Muslim control on Aug. 1, 1571. The surrender terms provided for the safety of the defeated Christian army. However, once the Muslim commander took control of the city, he ordered that the Christian commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, be skinned alive. His body was then quartered, and his skin was stuffed with straw, dressed in his uniform, and dragged throughout the city. The Christians now well knew what kind of enemy they were facing.

In 1571, Pope St. Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria, the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. The forces of Spain, Venice, Rome, Savoy, Genoa, Lucca, Tuscany, Manova, Parma, Urbino, and Ferrara, and the Sovereign Order of Malta formed an alliance against Turkey. (Interestingly, "Catholic" France refused and was financing the Muslim Turks so as to weaken their long time enemy, Germany-Austria.) While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked all of the faithful to say the rosary and to implore our Blessed Mother’s prayers, under the title "Our Lady of Victory," begging our Lord to grant victory to the Christians.

Although the Muslim fleet outnumbered that of the Christians in both vessels and sailors, the forces were ready to meet in battle. The Christian flagship flew a blue banner depicting Christ crucified, while the Muslim flags had excerpts from the Quran calling for jihad and death to the "infidels." On Sunday, Oct. 7, 1571, at 11 a.m., the Battle of Lepanto began, and at the end of five hours, the Muslims were defeated. That afternoon, while Pope St. Pius V was in a meeting, he suddenly stood up, went over to the window, stared outside in the direction of the battle many, many miles away, and said, "Let us no longer occupy ourselves with business, but let us go to thank the Lord. The Christian fleet has obtained victory."

The following year, Pope St. Pius V in thanksgiving established the Feast of the Holy Rosary on Oct. 7 where the faithful would not only remember this victory, but also continue to give thanks to the Lord for all of His benefits and remember the powerful intercession of our Blessed Mother. His Holiness also officially bestowed the title, "Auxilium Christianorum" or "Help of Christians," upon our Blessed Mother. The Venetian Senate also had painted on a panel in their meeting chamber, "Non virtus, non arma, non duces, sed Maria Rosari, victores nos fecit," i.e. "It was not courage, not arms, not leaders, but Mary of the Rosary that made us victors."

Mindful of the action of Pope Pius V, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in an Angelus address given in October 1983, stated, "The Rosary also takes on fresh perspectives and is charged with stronger and vaster intentions than in the past. It is not a question now of asking for great victories, as at Lepanto and Vienna, rather it is a question of asking Mary to provide us with valorous fighters against the spirit of error and evil, with the arms of the Gospel, that is, the Cross and God;s Word. The Rosary prayer is man’s prayer for man. It is the prayer of human solidarity, the collegial prayer of the redeemed, reflecting the spirit and intent of the first of the redeemed, Mary, Mother and Image of the Church. It is a prayer for all the people of the world and of history, living and dead, called to be the Body of Christ with us and to become heirs together with Him of the glory of the Father."

In recent times, the rosary has been upheld and promoted as an effective means for spiritual nourishment. Many saints have encouraged the recitation of the rosary, including St. Peter Canisius, St. Philip Neri and St. Louis de Montfort. Pope Leo XIII, often called "the pope of the rosary," strived to maintain the tradition of this prayer, which he asserted was a strong spiritual weapon against evil (Supremi Apostolatus Officio, 1884). Pope Pius XI in 1938 granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who recites the rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Both Blessed Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI also were great promoters of the rosary. The Enchiridion of Indulgences (1969), approved by Pope Paul VI, grants a plenary indulgence "if the Rosary is recited in a Church or public oratory, or in a family group, a religious Community or pious Association..." (No. 48).

Most recently, to mark the beginning of his 25th year as our beloved late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, issued his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, whereby he instituted the luminous mysteries and again exhorted the faithful to use the rosary "to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ." While dismissing any notion that the rosary distracts from the liturgy or was a hindrance to ecumenism, the Holy Father asserted, "But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the Rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as a genuine ‘training in holiness’: ‘What is needed is a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer’" (No. 5).

Therefore, the rosary is part of the spiritual history of our Church, to be cherished. It enables the faithful to participate in the living history of salvation, uniting us more closely with our Savior and His Blessed Mother, and with the whole Church. The rosary needs to be part of the history of each individual and each family, for through this prayer the bonds of love are strengthened.

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